A Good Tidy-Up: The Missing Six Months: Chapter 3

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Andy stood at the crossroads. Left or right? He couldn’t focus on anything and didn’t even really know where he was. He too had woken up feeling terrible; the same combination of hangover and guilt as Maria. He knew that he had pushed Maria too much about her hair, telling her to get it permed, when she clearly just needed time to get used to it being short. And what had he been thinking when he suggested that she’d look like her mother? What girl would want to hear that? Well, he could blame the drink for that, but it didn’t mean Maria hadn’t taken it to heart.

He could see that she’d tried to call him three times, but he had no idea where to start apologising, so hadn’t returned her calls. He’d convinced himself that he wasn’t just avoiding the situation, but that it would be better to do it in person. He turned left, without really knowing why.

He’d come out for a long walk to try to clear his head, and see if he could remember, or make more sense out of the events of last night. He knew that his relationship with Maria was serious, and he hoped that she wouldn’t allow a few thoughtless remarks to ruin things. The thoughts kept nagging away at him though; what if this was the last straw? He genuinely liked the ‘new’ Maria, with her short hair, ladylike outfits and less brash attitude. The changes in her had felt like a new page in their relationship, the start of a more grown-up and settled time. He reflected on this, and wondered whether he had been entirely fair to Maria. She’d been through a huge transformation, and had seemingly embraced it, but though he’d enthusiastically supported her, he hadn’t reciprocated. He could see now why this may have rubbed her up the wrong way, especially in the light of his ‘suggestions’ that she should go even further, curling and even perming her hair.

He came to another crossroads, and this time turned right, his eye briefly caught by a red and white striped pole across the road. He carried on walking, starting to remember what Maria had said last night. She’d clearly pointed out his hypocrisy in telling her to tidy her hair up more, when his own was such a mess. He guiltily ran his hand through the heavy locks, unconsciously trying to tidy them a little. Well, perhaps there was a solution to this after all. He would get his hair trimmed up nice and neatly and make sure that it was tidy, and out of his face the next time they went out. He was probably due for a cut soon anyway. His sluggish brain ticked for a few moments before reminding him that they were going out tonight. He’d been invited to Pam’s birthday celebration, and Maria was coming to pick him up in – he checked his watch – a couple of hours.

It now occurred to him that this was another reason for Maria’s frustration with him. He belatedly remembered that she’d told him weeks ago that this was going to be a ‘smart’ do, with all of her family there. She had asked him to wear a suit, and had said that her mum would appreciate him having his hair cut so that he looked tidy. Andy had brushed off her suggestions, thinking vainly that his long, unruly, floppy hair gave him a roguish charm, even with older ladies. But now doubts began to creep in. Mrs. Simmonds had made one or two pointed comments recently when his hair kept falling in his eyes, suggesting that if he couldn’t make it to the barber’s, then she could always find a ribbon to put in it. He’d laughed this off, but now started to think that she had been trying to tell him that she really was expecting him to have his hair cut for the party.

Andy felt some relief; he might have been a bit slow working it out, but he felt that now he knew how to patch things up with Maria. The only problem was where to go. He needed a haircut this afternoon, and there was no chance of making a booking at his usual salon. He’d just have to find somewhere that took walk-ins, but even then, most places would be pretty busy on a Saturday, and he didn’t have long. Come to that, his wanderings had taken him to a part of town that he didn’t really know; even getting back to familiar territory would eat into his available time. Slowly his brain clicked into gear. The red and white striped pole he’d noticed a minute ago – was that a barber’s?

He turned round and started back the way he’d come from.

 


 

Maria, meanwhile, was sitting helplessly in her mum’s kitchen, as Brenda enthusiastically cropped her hair in readiness for her perm. Pam watched happily from under the portable hood dryer.

“Now I can see that your hair was shaped to leave you a bit more length on top, dear, but since we’re perming it, I’m just going to cut it to the same length all over. It means that your curls will be nice and uniform, just like your mum’s.

“And the advantage of that is that there’s absolutely no need for styling, dear. No more standing in front of the mirror with a hairdryer every day. You’ll just be able to wash and go.”

Maria accepted all of this in a stunned silence. Part of her was still in denial; this was a bad dream she was going to wake up from, or maybe Mum would change her mind, and ask Brenda to just set Maria’s hair. The other part of her was resigned to her fate, and flipped between finding solace that at least she was making her mum happy, and feeling that this was payback for losing her temper with everyone last night. At least, she thought, ruefully, she wouldn’t have to worry about the wind messing up her hair tonight!

Brenda handed a pack of perm papers over. “Just pass those up to me, one at a time please.”

Maria knew the drill; she had sat and watched her mum being permed many times when she was younger. She held up a paper as Brenda sectioned off a chunk of hair. The paper and rod were swiftly rolled in and Brenda repeated the process. Before Maria knew it, her head was covered in tightly wound rods. A strip of cotton wool was wrapped around her hairline, and Brenda deftly applied the perm solution.

“There you go, dear. We just need to leave you for fifteen minutes or so for that to process. Pop yourself down over there, and I’ll get your mum combed out.”

Maria was ushered across the kitchen, and Pam emerged from under the dryer. Brenda removed her net, earpads and rollers, and started to tease her curls together. In no time, Pam’s hair had been sculpted into a perfect helmet of curls, neatly off her face and primly formal in its perfect symmetry.

“Is that all right for you Pam?” Brenda’s question was a formality; she’d given this exact style to Mrs. Simmonds more times than either of them could remember, and she was already reaching for the lacquer. Pam did take a quick look in the mirror she’d been handed, but she knew exactly what she would see.

“Yes, that’s lovely Brenda. Just what I needed. It’s nice to have it done properly again.”

Brenda shielded Pam’s eye’s with her hand, and gave her a thorough coating of heavily scented lacquer. “That should keep you nice and tidy for a bit.”

Maria eyed her mother’s hair nervously. When her perm was done, was she going to have her hair rollered, teased and lacquered too? Would she end up looking exactly like her mother? Brenda came over to her and fiddled with one of the perm rods.

“Hmmm.. Yes, I think you’re done. That’s taken very nicely dear. You’re going to have the most wonderful head of really tight little curls, you know.”

Maria was less than thrilled at this description, but by now was pretty much resigned to the idea. She allowed herself to be led over to the kitchen sink, and leant back over it. Brenda directed a spray of warm water over her head, rinsing all of the perm solution away. The soaked cotton wool was stripped away, and her hair, still tightly wound, was blotted with a towel.

“Right, young lady. Just the neutraliser to go, and you’ll be done.”

Brenda snipped the top off a second plastic bottle and carefully applied it along each of Maria’s rods. The smell was familiar to Maria, from her mother’s frequent perms, but she wasn’t prepared for how much stronger it would be when applied to her own head!

“Just another five minutes or so,” chirped Brenda, “and we’ll see just what those curls are going to look like.” She was clearly quite excited at the prospect, and Pam was beaming from ear to ear. Maria shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“I remember my first perm, you know.” Pam was clearly in a good mood, and was jabbering away. “I’d just left school, and was going to start my first job in the office at Wilkinson’s. Mother took me off to her hairdresser and had them cut my hair up short, and put a permanent in. She said it was what I needed to keep it tidy and out of my face, and I couldn’t go to work in an office with ribbons and hairslides like a schoolgirl.

“It was a bit of a shock, of course, but she was right, you know. I remember there was one older lady in the office who always had her hair in a bun, but all the others kept their hair short and tidy, and most of them had perms. So I fitted in very nicely with my new hairdo, and, well, I’ve kept it this way ever since, I suppose.”

Maria’s eyes widened slightly at this. She had realised that her hair would be short and curly for some time, but it now occurred to her that it might turn out to be genuinely permanent. Would she find herself, like her mother, keeping her hair in a short, tight perm for good? She knew that Pam would love that, and she had certainly been told often enough how much easier it would be; no fussy styling every morning, just wash and go tight curls.

She found it worryingly easy to imagine herself attempting to grow it out, getting frustrated and allowing her mother and Brenda to talk her into having it cut and permed again. Perhaps it would depend on Andy, she reflected. If he really did like her with her short, tight curls, then maybe she should just admit defeat, and let her mother book her regular appointments with Brenda. If Andy hated it of course, well, that was a problem. Since he’d suggested it though, even if he had been tipsy, he could hardly complain. He’d just have to put up with having a poodled girlfriend until it grew out, and serve him right!

Brenda now declared that Maria was done, and repeated the rinsing procedure. The rods were removed, with much ooh-ing and aah-ing from Pam, as she saw Maria’s tight curls for the first time. Maria rolled her eyes.

“Yes, that has taken beautifully, dear. You really are going to look like a darling little poodle, you know, just how your Mum wanted. Right, Pam, are we going to leave her like this, or do you want her to have it set?”

“Oooh, I really don’t know. Matching sets would be lovely,” – she patted her own stiffly lacquered hairdo – “but she does look absolutely darling with those little poodle curls.” She glanced at the kitchen clock. “You know, I think we might be a little tight for time already, so she can just have it like that, for today. I’m sure there will be plenty of chances to have it set, now that she’s finally a curly girl.”

Brenda nodded, and turned her hairdryer on Maria. Her hair was dry in no time, and Brenda quickly fluffed up her curls and reached for the lacquer. Maria made a feeble attempt to protest, but Brenda either didn’t hear her, or completely ignored her, and gave her a long, heavy spraying.

“There, one perfect little poodle, just like you wanted, Mum.”

“Oh, thank you so much, Brenda, she looks absolutely lovely. Now go and pop your new dress on, dear. I really want to see how it looks with those lovely new curls.”

“OK Mum.” Maria rolled her eyes again. Pam had bought the dress a few weeks ago, and presented it to Maria when she got home from work one day. Maria’s immediate reaction was that it was really far too old fashioned for her, even with her new toned down and smartened up image. It was a riot of floral pastels, with a long, full pleated skirt, full sleeves that buttoned at the wrist, and a large, square, white lace collar. Maria had been obliged to try it on for her mother, and discovered that it did nothing at all for her figure. The word that immediately came to mind as she looked in the mirror was ‘matronly’. Pam, of course, had loved it, and made Maria promise that she would wear it for the birthday dinner. Maria had been quietly hoping that her mum had forgotten, but no such luck.

She trudged glumly upstairs, wondering what Andy would think of the way she would look tonight. OK, it was a family function where they were both expected to dress smartly and look presentable, not a date, and he had always complimented her on her short hair and more modest outfits. Still, he was hardly going to be expecting her to turn up with exactly the same short, tight poodle perm as her mother, and in such a mumsy and frumpy dress. What if he hated it? Or laughed at her? Surely he wouldn’t break up with her over this?

She reluctantly slipped on the dress, and, knowing her mother wouldn’t let her go out bare-legged, pulled on a pair of opaque tan tights. Polished cream-coloured court shoes with a one-inch heel completed her outfit, and she nervously checked how she looked in the full length mirror.

Maria had thought that she had got used to not looking glamorous, but what she saw in the mirror still took her breath away. Over the last few weeks, she had made the effort to try to style her hair, and had chosen her outfits carefully, so that whilst she looked much smarter and more conservative than she used to, she still felt that she looked like an attractive young woman, choosing to dress ‘down’ and therefore look less attractive than she actually was.

Having her hair cropped and permed had changed that completely though. The practical and no-fuss style, if you could even call it a style, made her look older, and the way it was curled back so tightly and uniformly made her face appear rounder, and also plainer. She now looked, she felt, like a homely and unattractive girl, who could never have carried off fashionable and stylish clothes, and so simply opted to look neat, tidy and presentable.

There was something else that struck her, but she couldn’t immediately put her finger on it. Suddenly it came to her. She was well aware that the resemblance between her mother and herself was more pronounced since Jean had first cut her hair, and further strengthened as she’d started to dress more conservatively and forgo makeup in favour of soap and water. Now though, the resemblance was uncanny. She didn’t look exactly like her mother; there was, after all, nearly a thirty year age gap. She did, though, look unnervingly like the old photos she’d seen of Pam in her twenties.

It slowly started to dawn on her that the dress, which she had been dreading putting on, actually looked much better than she remembered. She was somewhat humbled when she realised that it wasn’t the dress which had changed; it was her. The dress was still thoroughly matronly, but with her new tight perm, so was she, and so the dress now looked entirely appropriate on her. At that point, Maria knew that the trendy and stylish majority of her wardrobe really were off limits to her for at least the next several months; she really had no option now but to dress as a conservative and respectable lady. She made her way downstairs, wondering once again how Andy would react when he saw her.

“Oh, that’s really lovely dear. I just knew that dress would look absolutely darling on you!” Pam was clearly delighted to see Maria dressed so smartly and formally. “And that perm really is wonderful. I hope you’re pleased with it, dear, I really think it suits you.”

“Well, it’s a bit of a shock, but it certainly seems to go well with this dress.” Maria smiled wryly. “In fact, I think you were right, Mum, when you said I’d have to take all my old clothes to the charity shop. I really can’t see myself wearing most of my old things, now I’ve got such a prim and proper hairstyle.”

“Well I’m glad you’ve seen sense, dear. You look like a proper, respectable young lady now, and you simply have to dress appropriately. We’ll go down to the charity shop tomorrow, and then go shopping for some nice new things that will be a bit more suitable for you.”

So that was it, Maria thought. No more skinny jeans, miniskirts and strappy tops for her; it was going to be long pleated skirts, primly buttoned blouses and mumsy floral dresses, if Pam had anything to do with it. She’d just have to hope that Andy was sincere in what he’d been saying; that he really did like her to be smartly and modestly dressed, and that he’d appreciate the convenience and lack of fuss of her no-nonsense tight perm.

 


 

She couldn’t stop thinking about this as she drove to Andy’s. Would he like her hair? Hate it? Laugh at it? And when he found out that it was permed, and she was stuck with it no matter what, how would he react?

Andy, meanwhile, was having very similar thoughts. He was, slightly reluctantly, putting on his best suit, having already donned a clean white shirt, following his mother’s instructions to make sure that his top button was properly fastened, and his tie done up neatly and tightly. It reminded him of getting ready for his cousin’s wedding a few years ago, which was, he reflected, probably the last time that his hair was anything like this short. He replayed again what had happened just a couple of hours ago.

 


 

He had retraced his steps to the red-and-white striped pole, slowing slightly as he approached, and realised just how old and run down it appeared. He told himself that this was simply because he wasn’t sure if it might have been closed down years ago, but really, it was the thought of having his hair cut in such an old-fashioned and basic looking barbers. As he got closer it was clear that it couldn’t be more different from his normal trendy high street salon.

The window was covered by grubby net curtains, so he couldn’t see in, and a clumsily hand-lettered sign gave the opening hours. He was half hoping that they were closed, but the sign suggested otherwise, and the door was ajar. He tentatively poked his head in.

The shop was just as tatty inside as out. The floor was covered in scuffed lino of indeterminate colour and the little light that filtered through the unwashed curtains was only slightly improved by the single overhead fluorescent tube. An old kitchen chair sat over to one side, with a small table holding the barbers tools, and a rickety looking bench ran down the other. Sitting on the end of this bench was a man who looked old enough to be Andy’s grandfather. He looked up from his paper.

“Come in then, if you’re coming.” He didn’t sound exactly welcoming. Andy swallowed. Did he really want this old man to cut his hair? What kind of haircut would he be likely to get? Nothing like his normal shaggy surfer style, that was for sure. Still, he told himself, he wasn’t here to get the same haircut he normally did; he wanted, no, he needed to smarten himself up, to show Maria that she, and her family were important to him; important enough for him to make some sacrifices. He took a slow step through the door.

“Hurry up, I haven’t got all day, even if you have.” He’d clearly got off on the wrong foot with the barber, never a good idea. He briefly regretted opening the door, but couldn’t see how he could back out now. He continued in to where the barber was now standing, by the old kitchen chair. He sat down and immediately had a well worn blue and white striped cape wrapped tightly around his neck. The old man picked up a spray bottle and soaked Andy’s hair, dragging his comb roughly through the tangles.

“I hope you don’t want anything fancy. I don’t do any of these modern styles. I’ve no time for long hair in this shop.”

“Oh, er, no, I, er, I just need a bit of a tidy up,” he offered lamely. “I need to look smart for, er, for a family do.”

“Well it’s more than a bit of a tidy up you’ll be needing then. Mother sent you I suppose.”

“Er, something like that.”

“Right, a proper haircut to make her happy then. Head down.” A surprisingly strong hand on the top of Andy’s head forced his chin down to his chest and he heard a loud buzzing noise. Andy’s heart leapt. He hadn’t had the clippers for a long time; since he was last taken to the barbers by his mother, in fact. He should have realised that an old-fashioned barber like this was likely to use them but he hadn’t really thought about it. It was too late to do anything now though, as they were biting into his hairline and ploughing up the back of his head.

Andy’s mind raced as his hair tumbled down onto the cape. It was clear that the old man didn’t care at all how Andy might want his hair cut. He was being treated like a stroppy teenager who’d been sent to the barbers for an unwanted back-to-school shearing, rather than as an adult who was paying for his haircut. He tried to calm himself by remembering that he did want, or rather, need, to be smartened up, and that the kind of cut the barber gave him was likely to be exactly what Maria’s mother, and therefore Maria, would appreciate.

His head was firmly pushed around as the old man continued to shear away the majority of his treasured locks. Andy looked around as best he could while his head was being held securely, but realised there was no mirror on the wall. Obviously this barber expected his customers to trust that he knew what he was doing.

Eventually, the clippers were put down. It felt like there was nothing left on the back and sides of his head, but Andy was relieved that, so far, the hair on top of his head felt more or less intact. He expected that it wouldn’t stay that way for long though, and he was quickly proven right..

“Right, that’s your ears uncovered. Now to get this mop out of your face.” The old man picked up a long pair of scissors and a comb and began unceremoniously removing most of what was left of Andy’s hair. Piece after piece was lifted with the comb and swiftly dispatched to the floor, via the cape. Andy’s head was beginning to feel incredibly light and feelings of panic started to rise inside him. Just what was he going to look like when the barber was finished?

So far, it felt horribly like the cuts he had had to endure when he was younger, and his mother had lost her patience with his attempts to cultivate a more fashionable hairstyle. “Give him a proper short back and sides, please,” she would instruct the barber. “I’ve had quite enough of this scruffy mess.” Despite Andy’s protests, the barber would do as instructed, and he would leave the shop with a perfect old-fashioned schoolboy’s cut, clean skin showing above his ears and collar, and the hair on top slicked and gleaming with an immaculate side parting. Whilst his mother had, of course, been delighted, he had hated it, and had dreaded the inevitable teasing at school, not all of it friendly. On one occasion his girlfriend had even decided that she couldn’t be seen with him any more, and had promptly dumped him to go out with a boy whose locks still tumbled over his collar.

The memory of this made the feelings of panic rise again. His long hair had been a part of his image for so long now, he couldn’t imagine how it would feel when it was taken away from him. How would his friends react? Would they laugh at him, like when he was at school? What about girls, would he still get admiring glances, or would they ignore him? Or worse, laugh at him too? And of course, there was Maria. For all she’d been nagging him to cut his hair, what if that was really just to appease her mother, and have him look a little tidier for tonight? How would she react to her boyfriend suddenly having a severe and old-fashioned short back and sides? Would she still find him attractive?

The barber switched from his long silver scissors to a pair of thinning shears, and started to thrash through the remnants of Andy’s thick, wavy locks. He wasn’t particularly careful and the insistent tugging and pulling was distinctly uncomfortable.Great clumps of hair were added to the pile on the cape. Andy could hardly believe that all of that had been on his head. Eventually, the torture ended and Andy let out the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding.

“Hold still now.” The barber combed Andy’s fringe down towards his eyes, and then snipped it off at a sharp angle. Andy belatedly realised that he should have been expecting this; his old barbershop haircuts had been the same, the barber checking which side Mum wanted his hair parted, and cutting the fringe accordingly. Mum would often happily comment how he would have to keep his hair in a parting now, and how much easier this made it for her to keep it neatly combed and out of his face. If Andy had thought fast enough, he could perhaps have stopped this, but he hadn’t, and now realised he was going to be stuck with a neat and tidy side parting for a long time.

“Right, let’s get you finished off then.” The barber picked up a big red tub of Brylcreem, scooped out a large glob and rubbed it forcefully into what was left of Andy’s hair. Andy then suffered the final indignity of having his normally unruly hair forced into a clean, straight side parting, the front combed back and up into a neat little wave. He was handed a mirror and looked into it, heart in mouth.

It looked pretty much as he had feared; a severely traditional short back and sides, his ears sticking out and surrounded by clean white skin. The barber briefly held another mirror behind him, and he could see that his neck had been clippered bare and red a good three inches above his collar. It was just as old-fashioned as anything his mum had ever made him have. The severity of the cut, the heavy application of Brylcreem and the immaculate parting all made it obvious that he had just been to a traditional barber, who had been intent on making him look as smart as possible. For someone who had always wanted to look relaxed, casual, even dishevelled, it was hugely disconcerting. He once again wondered what Maria would make of it. Hopefully she would understand, and appreciate the effort that he had made to look smart for her mum even if she thought that he looked ridiculous.

“There you go. Nice and smart, I’m sure your mother will be a bit happier with you now.”

That, Andy felt, was something of an understatement. The last time his mother had been happy with his hair was probably several years ago, at his cousin’s wedding. He’d reluctantly agreed to have his hair cut shorter than normal, and a week before the wedding had had it trimmed up off his collar, and only covering about half of his ears. Mum though, had not been impressed, and, despite Andy being 17, he had been marched down to the barber’s the day before the wedding to have his hair cut to her satisfaction. He had felt extremely embarrassed attending the wedding with his hair clipped high around his ears, slicked with Brylcreem and with a strict parting imposed by his mother’s comb.

He had allowed his hair to grow ever since, with only very occasional trims, and stubbornly ignored her pointed comments about the length and general untidiness of his hair, but she had been nagging him more than usual recently, especially since Maria had submitted to Jean’s comb and scissors. How could he possibly have hair longer than his girlfriend’s, his mother demanded? And if Maria could make herself look smart and respectable, why couldn’t he? Well, now he looked just as he had when she had controlled his haircuts, so he suspected she was going to be absolutely delighted.

Sure enough, having paid the barber and found his way home, his mum was, once she had picked her jaw up from the floor, cooing with delight over just how smart he looked.

“I knew you’d come to your senses eventually,” she chastised. “You couldn’t go on forever looking like such a scruff, especially when your girlfriend looks so smart and ladylike with a proper grown-up haircut.

“So was it Maria that told you to get it cut?” she prompted. “Heaven knows you never listen to me!”

“Er, yes, I suppose it was. You know we’re going out for her Mum’s birthday tonight, and, er, she asked me to have it cut so that, well, I looked a bit tidier.”

“And you certainly do. Well done. So, best suit then, I should think.” She looked at him pointedly. “And make sure you do your top button up! And do your tie up properly!”

 


 

Andy had followed his mum’s instructions, and was now waiting, nervously for Maria. He still had no idea how she would react. She had told him to get his hair cut, and short like Steve’s. But then again, he looked so different, how could she possibly still find him attractive?

He kept telling himself not to worry, it’s not like there was anything he could do about it, but his brain wouldn’t listen. Eventually he heard a distinctive rattle, and saw Maria’s little red Nissan Micra come around the corner.

Maria pulled up as close as she could to Andy’s house. She quickly checked her hair in the vanity mirror – still just as unflattering as she remembered, though perfectly tidy and presentable. Well, she couldn’t put it off any longer. She pulled up the hood of her raincoat against the persistent drizzle.

Her eyes opened as wide as saucers when Andy opened the door. She had been hoping that he had remembered to wear a suit, but it hadn’t crossed her mind that he would have had his hair cut, even after her comments the night before. Even if it had, she would never have imagined that he would have allowed himself to be so severely barbered. She immediately appreciated the effort he had gone to, even if she couldn’t quite decide what she thought of it. She wouldn’t tell him that, of course, she was sure that he would be feeling just as nervous as she was, so would need some reassurance. This all rushed through her head in less than a second.

Andy took in her reaction, pointed to his head, and said “Surprise!”.

Maria smiled at him, paused for a moment, raised her hands to her hood and lowered it. “Surprise!” she echoed back.

 

 


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